Anita struggled to tell her children about her diagnosis, and has since written a book for kids whose parents have cancer. She shares five tips for talking about illness with children.
I didn’t think it was real
At the end of November 2016, I discovered a lump in my right armpit. I saw the GP the following day and was referred for an ultrasound.
I went to the breast clinic, where I had my ultrasound, a mammogram, and then saw a consultant radiologist. He had the awful job of telling me that there were two lumps in my breast, as well as the lump in my armpit.
He did a biopsy and a week later I went back to the breast clinic with my husband, Simon. My two children stayed with their grandparents. It was four days before Christmas.
Our fears were confirmed. The tumours had spread to my lymph nodes. The New Year was going to mark the start of my breast cancer treatment.
Simon and I drove home stunned. In a way, we were expecting it, but it couldn’t be real, could it?
We’ve always been honest with our children
We knew we had to tell the children. Simon had to medically retire when his kidney transplant was failing. He’d been on two modes of dialysis, and our lives and what Simon was able to do had changed drastically.
We had always been honest with the children about Simon’s health. We looked for books to help us explain the changes in our lives but had been unsuccessful. We used our own knowledge and experience to answer the difficult questions. Why does Daddy’s arm buzz? Why does Daddy have a tube coming out of his tummy? Why can’t Daddy carry me anymore?
This time around, the breast care nurse had given us a book for each of the children, Mummy's Lump, published by Breast Cancer Care. It help them understand what breast cancer was, and what was ahead.
I knew they’d be less scared if they understood
It’s only fair to explain things to children. It’s the way they learn and come to terms with the situations they face. We knew from our experience with Simon’s illness that they would be less fearful about the procedures if they knew what was happening.
When we got home, we sat them down and told them about my diagnosis. We explained what cancer was, that they couldn’t catch it, and that none of us caused it. We also told them that the doctors had said they could treat me with medicine, surgery and X-rays.
We gave them big hugs and answered their questions.
We were able to celebrate together
In the following days, weeks and months, we continued to tell the children about the upcoming treatments – how long they would last, what would be done to Mummy, and how it was going to help.
When there were complications, we were honest with our disappointment and anger at the situations we were all in.
After a year I had my review, and was told I was ‘cancer free’, and we celebrated together as a family.
Anita’s five tips for telling children about breast cancer
1) Be honest
Make sure that you’re calm as you explain the diagnosis and treatment options, but be honest about how you feel. Children will react to your emotions and they’ll know when you’re hiding things. They may find it harder to trust what you say if they think that you are not telling them the truth.
2) Tell them early on
We told our daughter when I found a lump that I was going to have some tests and that I would tell her the results when we knew them. She knew from experience that we would be honest with her and trusted that we weren’t trying to hide what was happening.
3) Follow their lead
Our daughter has always lapped up any medical information that we’ve given her and used it to help her process her feelings. The question that I had expected her to ask came from our son.
He asked what would happen to him and his sister if both of us died. It was an extremely painful question to answer but as he was thinking about it, I knew I had to respond. I told him I hoped we would be with him for a very long time.
4) Keep them informed
We told the children about my diagnosis when we found out and continued to communicate at every stage of the treatment and subsequent check-ups and reviews.
5) Use available resources
After we told the children about my diagnosis, we gave them the books we received from Breast Cancer Care. We found that books and literature are a great starting point for talking to children about difficult situations.
While there were lots of books for breast cancer, we found nothing aimed at the children of renal disease patients, which is what Simon has. We decided to write and publish three books of our own. They are fictional accounts of two children whose parents cope with renal dialysis and transplantation issues.
We decided to crowdfund the fourth book in the series, B is for Breast Cancer. We hope it will help children understand the changes that happen in their parents' lives when one of them is diagnosed with breast cancer. We just reached our target, but any additional donations will contribute to marketing and allow us to donate copies of the book to families who need it.
If you're concerned about talking to family and friends about breast cancer, our information pages might help.